THE BLOG

What Does a Whale Know?

06/11/2014 15:17 GMT | Updated 05/01/2015 10:59 GMT

What do humpback whale song, Beyoncé and a book for Christmas all have in common? Well, it has something to do with how you came to learn about them.

Whilst some small corners of western society are still struggling to come to terms with the concept of Darwinian evolution, most of us take it as red that the man in the big white beard got it right. Most secondary school students could give a decent account of natural selection and some could even describe the molecular basis of this phenomenon: DNA. However, what few would be able to tell you about is something increasingly described as the 'second inheritance system'. What's important about this work? It will change the way that we understand evolution for some species and perhaps even provide glimpses into their inner worlds.

Knowledge is clearly a currency within our own societies. That's why surgeons generally earn more than cashiers and many governments have intelligence agencies. What is perhaps unexpected is that knowledge is also a currency for survival in other species. But is this really surprising? Knowledge about critical feeding or breeding habitat would surely give any individual an advantage. But the real benefit to selfish genes is an ability to pass helpful knowledge on to relatives.

This process of passing on knowledge between individuals, whether closely related or not, is known as social learning. Scientists now argue that the acquisition of knowledge through learning from other individuals can result in unique non-human cultures.

We know that culture has a very strong influence on human societies, from the facile through to founding principles of our constitutions. If you ever doubt the importance of socially transmitted information to human societies, beyond Beyoncé or Facebook, just look at how international treaties do their business, most operate a system of 'one nation one vote'. The result is that a nation such as Tuvalu, with a population of less than 10,000 people, has the same voting power as a country the size of India or China.

Why is this? It is because these jurisdictions are not just established on the basis of geography, but also firmly established on the basis of cultural characteristics - those 'others' to whom we relate and with whom we share a sense of cultural identity.

But this sense of cultural identity is complex. Many of us have a pair of jeans, most of us either drink coke or despise it, but pretty much all of us know what it is. So whilst we may have a sense of regional or national cultural identity, there are now many other layers of cultural influence which shape us into modern humans.

All this makes us complex as both individual and as societies. In some cases our behaviour becomes difficult to predict and in other instances our responses can be easily forecast, much to the delight of advertising executives.

However, what is a revelation is that cultural forces may also act to shape the behaviour of other species. Two leaders in the field of non-human culture are Prof Hal Whitehead and Dr Luke Rendell, who have spent many years plumbing the depths of the oceans, attempting to unravel some of the mysterious behaviours of whales and dolphins.

There are few environments that are more hostile and present more of a challenge to mammals than the ocean. This is precisely why, Whitehead and Rendell argue in their new book 'The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins', just like us, knowledge is also a vital currency for these marine mammals.

The pair provide wonderfully rich examples of the similarities and differences between human and non-human cultures. Many of which will make you laugh out loud (or LOL...), but perhaps too, reflect upon the very nature of the 'human condition'. They remind us that our behaviours result not just from our genes, but that they are also deeply shaped by the information and behavioural norms transmitted to us from others.

Whitehead and Rendell, guide the reader gently through the enormous conceptual leap that is required to truly understand that humans are not alone in possessing culture.

The language is very accessible and they provide background on the origins of behavioural ecology, Darwin's concept of 'inherited habits' and the natural history of whales and dolphins, to provide context to where it is these species have evolved to, from a behavioural sense.

There are moments when you suspect they might be playing with you - tying you up in knots thinking about your own cultural preconceptions - and that, I think, is precisely the point.

At times it is a humorous journey through aspects of human behaviour and 'decision making', resulting as it does from cultural pressures. But this apparent irreverence is not without deeper meaning and strong intent. Their light-hearted approach to some questions (such as 'is human culture unique', 'what makes us special?), does not disguise the depth with which they have tackled this new frontier in understanding. As a result they provide some sobering insights into those ubiquitous cultural forces that shape us all into modern human beings and at times can leave you reeling with questions about your own free will.

This is an exceptional book; it will no doubt irritate some anthropologist who believe that culture is the domain of humans alone; it may even rile some theologians; but far, far more importantly it will help to bridge the gap between humans and other species, speaking as it does to the evolutionary continuum and demonstrating with sound scientific evidence that there are some extraordinary non-human cultures being played out in the natural world.

Whitehead and Rendell are world leaders in this field, the evidence they present in this book has been painstakingly collated by them and other scientists over decades. What is new here is its synthesis, subtly tackling a huge leap in human perceptions about the complexity of some of the other species with which we share our planet.

They take the reader on a journey from the early ethologists, such as Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen and early research into bird song, where it soon became evident that elements of the songs of many birds are socially learned. They describe how social learning seemed the most plausible explanation for the spread of a technique by which blue tits opened the tops of milk bottles in Britain.

They discuss how in the 1950s and 60s the social learning of primates began to receive attention and the label 'culture'. This work was led by Japanese researchers who noted socially learned traditions in groups of Japanese macaques or 'snow monkeys' - most famously on Koshima Island where these primates learned from each other to dunk sweet potatoes in the ocean to remove the sand before eating them.

The authors then describe how research on non-human culture shifted into another gear in 1978, when researchers began to examine grooming hand clasps in chimpanzees. The reason this so fascinated the scientists is that the behaviour seemed to be 'arbitrary'. i.e. unlike the potato washing, this socially transmitted behaviour was not related to resource extraction.

Much has changed since 2001 when Whitehead and Rendell (along with other notable colleagues) published the first review of the evidence for cultural transmission in whales and dolphins and joined the fray of the 'chimpanzee wars' (essentially a debate between researchers studying chimpanzees in captivity - claiming 'no culture' - and the field scientists, who believed their research demonstrated strongly that chimpanzee societies in the wild have diverse cultures). Whitehead and Rendell helped open the door for studies on culture for a range of species from meerkats to birds.

It is always great to get new perspectives and I doubt that there is anyone who could read this book and not learn something. The accessibility of the book makes it valuable to the lay reader and the expert alike. I challenge any mammal expert to read this book and not be enlightened in some way by the pair's perspective on the cultural lives of whales and dolphins.

This book is important because it remind us that populations and social groups are not comprised of homogenous automatons of varying age groups, but instead of mixed and varied individuals, some with social roles, who can learn from each other. This is important to our conservation efforts as it may influence the way that these species respond to threats in their natural environments.

As ever, they pay homage to those who have gone before them -Ken Norris, Katy and Roger Payne - in unravelling some of the mysteries of these marvellous animals, such as the song of humpback whales, that most famous of animal pop cultures.

If you ask Santa for nothing else this Christmas, ask him for this book. It may tell you as much about yourself and your own influences as it does about the rich diversity of some of the other cultural animals with which we share our blue planet.

Be in no doubt that Whitehead and Rendell's upbeat tone belies the fact that not only are they serious scientific radicals, but they are also passionate about helping the rest of us to grasp what it is they have come to understand, over decades of research, about the cultural animals of the oceans. This very book can be considered itself an experiment in social transmission. The question is, will we get the message?